Supertramp had struggled to put together a consistent run of albums and songs, but with the huge success of Breakfast In America following the well-received Even In The Quietest Moments, perhaps the band had finally righted the ship and would start producing some of their best work. Unfortunately, the early '80's weren't responsible for any band's best work, and it doesn't take long for Supertramp to dispel any and all hope that they might change the trend on Famous Last Words.
It was Roger Hodgson's turn to open the album, and his Crazy appears to be in a similar style to the previous album's The Logical Song. However, something doesn't sit right, and it soon becomes apparent lyrically that Crazy is far from a spiritual brother to The Logical Song or Rick Davies' Asylum. The repeated line "Brother, why you gotta be so crazy" seems to suggest a desired return to conservatism rather than questioning the definition of the word like the other two songs do. The closing chorus of "crazy" doesn't help things, as its use appears to be either because Hodgson likes the sound of the word or because it's the song's title, rather than because of any significant meaning. Musically, though, the band isn't off to a poor start. Things start to fall apart, however, on Hodgson's next track.
It's Raining Again is the closest thing to a big hit off the album, and it's usually included on any Supertramp compilation. While it's certainly the catchiest song on the record, it also demonstrates the difference between this album and Supertramp's earlier (read: better) work. While songs like Take The Long Way Home and The Logical Song are among the band's most recognizable and accessible work, at their core are deep questions about humanity and our existence. It's Raining Again almost seems to be in that vein, but it fails for various reasons. The first is how vague the subject matter is approached. There appears to have been a lost love, but no other details are offered. This makes it seem like it's not based on any experience Hodgson had, but that it was chosen because it's a song cliché. The most obvious reason though is that this is probably the happiest and most joyful song the group ever recorded. You might think about arguing how this symbolizes the joke that the protagonist's life has become, but by the time the children's chorus enters, it becomes apparent that this isn't the case. It seems more likely that Hodgson was afraid to give the song the dark and emotional depth it needed, so he dressed it up as a children's song instead. Oh yes, complete with a children's chorus singing the traditional "It's Raining, It's Pouring" as the song fades out. It's really hard to guess what Hodgson was thinking with this song, but what sticks out is the fear. With the stated conservatism of Crazy, it's already becoming clear by track 3 that Supertramp were trying very hard not to offend anybody with their new batch of songs, and were already failing miserably. The bad news is that It's Raining Again is the high point of the album. It's even further downhill from here.
The rest of Hodgson's tracks are spotty at best. Know Who You Are appears to be a nice change in style and tone from the rest of the album, but comes with a caveat. Not only does the title relate rhythmically to his earlier Hide In Your Shell, but the melody line is completely lifted from Glenn Miller's Moonlight Serenade (think of the opening clarinet part). He repeats it again and again, just begging you to join in with the far more interesting Miller tune. This distracts too much from the song to make it a worthwhile listen. C'est Le Bon fares much better musically, but the confusing French title seems to have been chosen because of its similarity to the word "sailing", which starts off the second line of the chorus. It also shares the same problems that his first two tracks had. Hodgson was capable of much better work, but for whatever reason, he didn't produce it here. Of course, Supertramp was a two-man act songwise, and it's possible that Rick Davies could offer some better tunes.
Unfortunately (again), Davies' songs are either at or below the level of Hodgson's on every Supertramp album they did together; he never bettered him. Even despite the low quality of Hodgson's work here, the same pattern holds true. Breakfast In America found Davies finally having a big hit of his own in Goodbye Stranger, yet still expanding musically on tunes like Casual Conversations or Gone Hollywood. For most of Famous Last Words though, he is stuck in an ersatz R&B funk that he can't shake. Put On Your Old Brown Shoes, Bonnie, and My Kind Of Lady all have their moments and are catchy to some degree, but they all suffer from the same bland production that is typical of the album. This erases any effect they might have had, and makes them quite difficult to remember or care about. Davies finally tries to do something different on Waiting So Long, but one quickly wishes he didn't. He appears to be returning to the dark tone that was so effective at the end of Asylum, but this is so misplaced here that it becomes a hilariously bad parody of the earlier tune. Each uttering of "I've been waiting so long" is echoed by the band, and is needlessly pounded in with cymbals for each syllable. While Supertramp were already struggling mightily by this point, it becomes clear that they have hit rock bottom with this ridiculous tune. Perhaps fortunately for everyone, the band would soon be put out of its self-inflicted misery.
By the time the final tune, Don't Leave Me Now, is reached, it's doubtful that anyone will care that the song is slightly better than some of the preceding ones, although it remains confused thematically. Hodgson sings the tune, but it is he who would leave the band in the coming year. Don't Leave Me Now is similar in style to Hodgson's upcoming solo album In The Eye Of The Storm, although not so much that the tune as it stands isn't a pathetic way to end such a poor album.
Musically, Famous Last Words doesn't warrant so low of a rating, but it's the idea behind the album that really hurts it. It's not so much that the band tried to follow-up their greatest success and failed, but that they clearly thought they could make a lot of money off of this trash. Each song does its best not to offend, and was clearly hopeful of finding a place on the watered-down radio of the early '80's. It is true that the audience of that time turned away many great bands of the '70's with their stylistic preferences, but they weren't such that they couldn't recognize this record for what it was. Famous Last Words is an album that is paralyzed by fear, has nothing to say, and is produced to remove any hope of recognition of its songs. It is an insult to every fan of music that the band thought they could put out this junk, and that we would flock to the stores to buy anything with their name on it. Really though, it was just strange and sad to see Supertramp finally get the recognition they deserved, and then throw everything away in the space of one album. With a title like Famous Last Words though, it's hard not to think they weren't asking for it.